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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Reviving Democracy During the 2020 Campaign Season by Learning How to Hope


On the evening of October 9, Professor Sarah Stitzlein of the University of Cincinnati sparked an exciting discussion with her presentation on fostering hope, and how that might affect the 2020 election. Stitzlein began with her diagnosis—a look at America’s attitude today toward our political future. She characterized this attitude as cynical. Largely, Americans want to retreat from the political sphere, to throw their hands up in denunciation of the government, and to insist there is nothing we can do. Stitzlein argued, instead, that Americans need to foster, and act in, hope.

Stitzlein’s is not a traditional definition of hope. For many, hope is an individual desire toward a particular goal. This intensified individualization of hope is problematic, she said, though it is the natural result of our hyper-individualistic, competitive discourse in the frame-work of the “American Dream. ”Instead, Stitzlein urged the audience to re-evaluate their definition of hope and to adopt a “pragmatic hope” framework, drawing from the work of John Dewey. Hope, she argued, must be seen as collective and active. It is not a thing to hold, but a process of having. This reconceptualization of hope requires a few steps. The first step is inquiry: in times of despair, the situation is best understood empirically. Next, Stitzlein detailed growth: this comes as a result of what was learned empirically, though this growth is not toward an end, but is worthwhile in and of itself. The third step is meliorism: an essential char- acteristic of Stitzlein’s entire outlook, meliorism is a call for thoughtful action, not blind optimism. In meliorism is the belief that there is a way rational-empirical understandings can help society. Stitzlein’s final step is the development of habits. According to her, hope is a set of habits—“a predisposition to act.”

Stemming from this active, dynamic definition of hope, Stitzlein suggested ways to practice hope and explained the benefit of viewing hope as a collaborative, social mission, grounded in mutual trust. One essential practice, Stitzlein argued, is to conceive of political dissent as hope—proactively using dissent to raise consciousness and propose solutions.

Stitzlein shared with the audience her own experience teaching “hope as habits” in her course, “Save Our Schools!,” at the University of Cincinnati. In the course, students foster a spirit of criticality and the ability to imagine creative solutions to problems in Cincinnati’s public schools. In this process, research and effective listening are emphasized as essential to the practice of hope and the generation of solutions.

Stitzlein ended with a call to action: young people have the motivation and the leadership to practice hope as well as to foster a melioric attitude surrounding our current political climate and the upcoming election.

Stitzlein’s lecture launched an exciting discussion, beginning with a keenly insightful response by Professor Christopher Higgins that questioned whether asking schools to teach hope was putting too much responsibility onto an already over-worked and over-burdened system. Others asked whether there were limits to what groups can hope for, particularly with regard to matters that violate others’ moral convictions, and toward what image of democracy Stitzlein’s teaching of hope was working.